Karin Lin-Greenberg, YOU ARE HERE

Karin Lin-Greenberg, YOU ARE HERE

Zibby speaks to author Karin Lin-Greenberg about You Are Here, a charming and poignant novel about five characters whose stories entwine when a shopping mall shuts down. Karin details her inspiration for the book, which came during a haircut, and then explains how a standalone short story quickly grew into an entire world. Karin also discusses her path to teaching, the impact of the pandemic on young people, and the distinctions between writing fiction and nonfiction. Finally, Zibby and Karin chat about the roles of malls in their own lives.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Karin. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss You Are Here.

Karin Lin-Greenberg: Thanks so much for having me on, Zibby.

Zibby: I am sort of notorious with my team for not noticing things on covers. I just, having looked at this cover eight thousand times over months, have just noticed that there is a woman on an escalator behind this pattern. I thought it was just a design. That’s so cool.

Karin: It’s very cool. I actually just saw the cover for the audio. You see more of the escalator, more of the bottom and the top. I was like, this is so cool. I love that book cover design. I think they did a really great job with it.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Really amazing. The story was amazing too. First of all, I love the whole premise, a novel set of characters in the mall and the intersecting lives, but then this goes so much deeper through tragedy and aging and loss and everything. Wow.

Karin: Thank you.

Zibby: Where did the inspiration for the book come? Tell listeners what it’s about.

Karin: As you said, it centers on a dying shopping mall. It takes place in the ten months leading up to the closing of the mall. There are five point-of-view characters. Their lives all intersect with the mall in some way. There’s a nine-year-old boy who is the son of a hairstylist in the mall. She’s the only hairstylist left in the mall salon. He comes to the mall every day after school while she’s working. He is hiding a secret from his mom, which is that he wants to be a magician. He’s practicing magic and learning magic tricks on YouTube. His mom, as I said, is the lone hairstylist in the mall. She’s hiding a secret from her son, which is that she wants to illustrate children’s books. The third character is a woman named Ro, who is ninety years old. She comes every week to get her hair cut or hair styled. She doesn’t really need this, but it’s a way to connect with people. The mall is really the place where she goes and gets to talk to people. There is a teenager who works in the food court who has aspirations of being an actor and just really wants to get out of there. Then there is a failed PhD student who is the manager of the mall bookstore and kind of dragging his feet on what to do with his academic career. All five of them come to the mall for different reasons. Then when they find out the mall is closing, they have to think about, what’s the next step? What’s going to happen after in their lives?

Zibby: I love when the boy — I’m really bad with names. What is his name again?

Karin: Jackson. Jackson’s the little one.

Zibby: When Jackson talks to his mom about the — he’s like, what if you don’t leave? What if you just stay here and refuse to go? I’ve seen it on YouTube. You can just handcuff yourself to the store, basically. She’s like, no, you have to really care about the place to do that. He’s like, you don’t care about it? She’s like, I can be a hair stylist anywhere. He’s devastated by this.

Karin: Just the different relationships they have to this place and his idea of, how is our life going to go on if you don’t have this job? Handcuff yourself to this mall that nobody cares about anymore. She just thinks this is totally ludicrous.

Zibby: Even when you have the new architect or whatever he is, the new developer of the place, trying to figure it out and thinking, “Is it going to have apartments? Is it going to be another mall?” I feel like Jackson was just like — Jackson, right? Did I just say it wrong again?

Karin: Yeah, Jackson. You got it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m sorry. I’m losing my mind today. Jackson was like, you don’t even know what it’s going to be? He’s like, what do you think? We’re figuring it out. The idea that something that you love could be destroyed and replaced by a question mark, it’s so disheartening. I feel that way about stores closing all the time. It’s gone, but what’s there now? There’s not even anything there.

Karin: With that character, with kids, when you’re a kid, you think adults have all the answers. That’s something for him that’s confusing. It’s just like, why don’t you know the next step? You should. You’re an adult. That confusion, I think as adults we’ve come embrace this idea that we often don’t know. We don’t know the next step in even our own lives. Not even, what’s that store going to be? Just, what am I doing after this year?

Zibby: Very true. Then you have Ro. By the way, I used to be obsessed with — I still am obsessed with taking pictures and all of that, but now it’s on my phone. I used to run to the one-hour photo place all the time. In fact, my high school — I don’t even know why I’m talking about this. Sorry. We’ll get back to your book. My high school graduation, we had this ceremony. It ended at one. Then everyone was meeting again at four. I took a whole roll of film. I ran it to the one-hour photo, got the photos back, and brought them to dinner. Everyone’s like, wait, how is that even possible? I’m like, I went to the one-hour photo place. It was really one hour. People are like, what? It always takes a day.

Karin: Was a drive-through one? Have you seen those?

Zibby: No. It was in New York City. It was on 70th and Lex or something. I remember that so well and just sitting on the couch. Then when you said doubles, I had actually forgotten that term. I want doubles. Oh, my gosh.

Karin: That’s something I miss. You open the envelope, and you don’t know what’s going to be in there. You don’t know. It could just be terrible blurred pictures, and the event is gone. It’s something that, for sure, I miss. It’s so easy now with your phone, but opening the envelope and seeing what’s there, that was exciting.

Zibby: It’s how you remember everything, at least for me. I feel like if I have a picture, it brings all of it back. If I forget to take a picture or I lose the pictures — that sense of discovery you have in the book where it’s like — having to research where to even get them, she’s like, I don’t even know. Where do you even do this anymore? I was thinking the same thing. Does it exist?

Karin: I was thinking that too. When I was writing it, I was thinking, when was the last time I saw a place that does — it used to be every drugstore. I was walking around in the drugstore. I don’t think there’s a place here anymore to do this. I think you can put your SIM card in. There’s a machine, but there’s not a person. That’s not somebody’s job anymore, to man that booth. A big change.

Zibby: Of course, what it represents is a new entry point into someone’s life and emotions and all of that. You can have one idea of someone, and then you see a prior self, honestly. It’s before her loss, before her life changed. How do you reconcile these two totally disparate-seeming people and synthesize all that information?

Karin: It felt useful to me to try to figure out, how are you going to get this character’s past? She’s not somebody who’s going to talk about it, so it has to be something that is found. That’s the solution I came upon.

Zibby: That is so cool. That’s so cool. How did you arrive at the different characters and the idea itself? Were you wandering around the mall one day and were like…?

Karin: I started with the first chapter, which started as a story. I was just thinking of it as a standalone story. It started with just a conversation. I was getting my hair cut. The woman who was cutting my hair was talking about getting scissors sharpened and how it used to be there were people who would come to the salons. They’d do it. That was their job. Nobody does this anymore. There are a lot of things in this novel about how things used to be versus how they are now. She started talking about that. She said, “I have to send my scissors to Japan to get sharpened. That takes a long time, so I need a second pair.” I was thinking about that. Then I just started thinking about things that are gone. I remember when I was a grad student, I would go get my hair cut in the mall. The salon was just gone one day. Okay. Where am I going to go now? This idea of things disappearing. I just started with that first story.

Then it got published. I was thinking, maybe I can keep building. I had that character of Ro, the ninety-year-old woman, in that story. She’s just somebody who comes in in that story. There’s a line or two about her. Jackson, the young kid, looks at her and just thinks about — he doesn’t want to ever be that old. I thought, she’s got to have a story, and so I built on her. Then I just kept building and thinking, this is this place where people who would never otherwise interact would come together in some way in this mall. I kept thinking, what other stories could I build around these characters? I started it with the idea that it would be linked stories. Then as I built the stories, I started thinking maybe it’s not actually a linked story collection. Maybe it’s a novel because there are certain things now that depend on knowing earlier things in order to understand it. It started with one story. Then from there, where can I go with this? Then just building up this world.

Zibby: Wow. That is literally what I thought. I read the first chapter. I started the second. I was like, oh, it’s a different character. We’re going to have a whole collection here of linked stories. Then of course, the big event that occurs that I don’t want to give away or anything, when you see a lot of people interacting, it changes the narrative and the memories and people flashing forward, flashing back, rethinking everything, and having everybody all enmeshed, in a way.

Karin: Without giving it away, I think it’s also this idea of an ending. It’s another ending. How we deal with endings, how we cope with endings, whether they are dramatic or undramatic, that’s the second half. It’s multiple endings to cope with for the characters.

Zibby: What endings are you working through yourself? I’m going to go on a limb and think that maybe you’re sort of subconsciously working through your own ending of something. I don’t know. Just throwing it out there.

Karin: That’s really interesting. I think in the small ways, like the things that we were just talking about. Where am I going to get my hair cut now? What if I wanted to take a roll of photos on real film? Things like that. I teach. I had a lot of visiting jobs before I landed in the one where I am right now. I’ve actually been here where I am in Upstate New York outside of Albany for about ten years now. It feels really strange to me to not have an ending and to have a new start. For a lot of years, it was, I’d work for a couple years, pack up, move on, go to the next place. For me, the stranger thing is to not have things ending and starting all over again and having a new place, new people to discover. I think you’re right, probably like a lot of endings that I was thinking of while I was writing this, but now in the strange position of, oh, I can stay for as long as I want.

Zibby: How did you get into writing to begin with, and teaching?

Karin: Writing was just something that I always loved doing. As a kid, I liked writing and drawing. I thought, sort of like Tina, thought maybe I would write and illustrate children’s books. Then I got to college. I just kept going with writing, probably for the silliest reason. When you’re eighteen, you make really dumb decisions sometimes. There was a lottery for a creative writing class. It was literally a lottery. It wasn’t, you submit a writing sample. I’d signed up for an art class and a writing class. I thought, if I get into this writing class, that’s got to be a sign from the heavens. I got into the writing class. Again, lottery. It wasn’t the quality of my work. I was just like, okay, I guess this is the path I pursue. I was an English major, did a creative writing concentration. Then after college, I was working. I was actually teaching GED and adult ed classes and then realized that I liked teaching, but then I also realized that I really missed being in writing classes and being in a writing community. I was taking continuing ed classes and then went back to school for writing and then got my MFA and then since then have been teaching and have been very fortunate to be able to teach creative writing. I get to talk to young people about writing stories and poems and essays. I feel very, very lucky.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Are you seeing any themes in the writing that’s coming from young people today?

Karin: I was actually just talking to some colleagues about this. I teach at a very small school, so I teach all the creative writing classes. I teach in all genres. I’ve been seeing a lot of writing, since the pandemic especially, about anxiety. I don’t know what to do about that as a writing teacher. I’m always thinking, how do we make the best and most engaging essay? I think it’s really interesting to see how the pandemic has affected young people. The students I’m dealing with, lots of essays about, their last year or two of high school was at home. Their first year of college, they’re sitting in their dorm. They had to get an assigned time for when they could come pick up their box that was filled with their dinner. It was really hard to make friends. Of course, these students have a lot of anxiety. That’s been really interesting to notice with students. I hope things get better. I think they’re getting a little bit better. One of the things that’s really interesting is I think students are really seeking out connections, whether in classes or clubs or anything like that, because they were deprived of it for a few years. Definitely something interesting that I think has emerged in some of the writing that I see, and just understanding how incredibly difficult it is to be a young person right now, and especially the last few years, for sure.

Zibby: I know. I think of all my kids. My youngest son is eight. We were going through my photos, as he always does. We came across a video I didn’t even know I had of his Zoom preschool graduation ceremony. It was so sad. There we all were on the computer wearing this pretend paper hat we had made. I was like, I can’t believe that’s how it was for him. He’s fine. He’s rolling with it. Whatever, but knowing what it could’ve been…

Karin: It’s kind of amazing, too, how resilient kids are. What a strange time we lived through. A Zoom graduation. Graduation’s supposed to be this celebratory time where everyone’s together, and everyone’s sitting in their little box on Zoom. It’s strange.

Zibby: Insane. If you were teaching me how to write an essay, what are some of the most important things? What are some of the things that maybe authors who are listening might not expect that is part of your teaching?

Karin: When I teach essay writing, one of the things for my students especially is that readers don’t know what they know. I think this is one of the hardest things, especially students who go from fiction writing to nonfiction writing. Fiction writing, obviously, they’re making up the world. They feel like they have to put onto the page, this world that they’re creating. In nonfiction, I find a lot of students kind of forget. I’ll say things like, who is this person you’ve been talking to for five pages? Is this a relative? Who is this? Things like that. Something I’ve been working this — this isn’t saying that every essay needs to have it. It’s just scenes. Students oftentimes, especially coming from academic writing — this is something across all creative prose. Students just are not used to writing scenes with dialogue and action and description. They’re used to making arguments. Sensory details. I say, what did it smell like? What did it feel like? Was it cold? Was it hot? Some of those things. I think that when people are nudged, they can vividly fill out these scenes but sometimes forget, especially moving from academic writing to creative writing.

Zibby: Interesting. I feel like one piece of advice I got that I love is don’t underestimate the reader. I felt like I had to explain a little bit or whatever. They’re like, no, no, no, you can jump a hundred years, and they’ll catch on. I’m like, what?

Karin: One thing, too, I think that’s interesting, that overexplaining and then — I don’t know where this comes from. I find that a lot of times students want to give a moral at the end. It’s like, therefore, from this experience, you need to appreciate your grandparents because they won’t always be there. It’s like, no, we get it. We get it from the story itself. That goes to exactly what you’re saying. Readers will get it. Readers will put those things together.

Zibby: What is like now having the book come out?

Karin: It’s exciting. I had two story collections come out from university presses. Probably, fewer people got those books in their hands. It’s just exciting that people are interested in reading this book. It’s interesting because a lot of people say to me, I don’t like stories, but I like novels. Just the genre itself I think has gotten people more excited to read it. Again, I think of each chapter almost like a story. It has kind of a movement of a story. It’s just exciting that people are excited to read it. My press has been doing a great job of getting it into people’s hands. I’m excited to hear what people think about it. Hopefully, they like it.

Zibby: That’s so great. What’s your favorite mall?

Karin: It’s interesting. People think that I maybe am a mall expert.

Zibby: I’m not saying you’re an expert. I’m just wondering.

Karin: I grew up in New Jersey, and so the mall that I would go to as a kid was the Short Hills Mall. I haven’t been there in forever. I was actually thinking about my mall experiences as of late. I almost never go to the mall anymore. I don’t know if I should admit this. I usually find myself going if I have to bring my computer to the Apple Store. Then I just walk around. What’s going on? I don’t know if you’ve been to a mall lately, but they’ve changed. They’re really strange. They’re these entertainment centers now. I went to my local mall, and there were three escape rooms. Why do you need so many escape rooms in the mall?

Zibby: That’s amazing. I need to go there and take the kids.

Karin: There’s mini golf. It’s an entertainment center. Over the winter, I was driving — I was teaching in Pittsburgh at a low-residency MFA. I was driving home. I stopped in a mall out there. There was — I don’t know what they’re called. They’re these big, round plastic balls that you can go in and roll around in. I don’t know if you know what those are. There was a storefront — it used to be a storefront — that was filled with these big plastic balls that people could roll around and bump into their friends in. I just got out to stretch my legs and walk around. I was like, malls have gotten really weird lately.

Zibby: Wow. I did not grow up going to malls because I’m from New York City. Whenever I would occasionally go to a mall, I’m like, this is nuts. I can’t believe this, all these stores right here. I did go. I took my kids, who had, I don’t think, ever been to a mall. We were dropping my son off somewhere. He needed an hour to hang out with someone. We were like, what are we going to do in White Plains for an hour? We went to the mall. It was fantastic. I was like, “You guys, it’s almost Christmas.” Not that we celebrate Christmas. I was like, “Let’s do all our holiday shopping now.” We raced around. It was so fun. It was an activity. It was a blast from the past type of thing.

Karin: It sounds like you were with your family. I think about teenagers, too, and malls being such a great place for them. You can walk around. It’s relatively safe. You don’t have to buy things. You can spend hours there. You can see your friends there. Just as a place, I think they’re an interesting place to think about and to think about the reasons why people go to them.

Zibby: That’s so funny. I’ve literally never thought about how convenient it would be as a parent to have a teenager at the mall. I’ve only thought about it as me, the teenager. That’s so funny. That would be convenient. Maybe I’ll just drive them all to White Plains and leave them there for a while.

Karin: Just drop them off. They’ll be fine.

Zibby: They’ll be fine. They’ll figure it out.

Karin: They can roll around in some plastic balls.

Zibby: Exactly. Go mini golfing and have the time of their life. Do you have another book coming up? What are you working on now? More stories?

Karin: I’ve been working on stories just here and there. That’s what I started doing as a writer, and so I feel weird if I’m not writing stories. I’m also working on a new novel too, in early stages of it and just trying to figure things out. Things are kind of messy right now. Just all these files in a big folder. It’s not ready for other eyes yet. After writing this, the idea of sustaining a longer narrative has been an interesting challenge for me coming from writing stories for many years.

Zibby: That’s cool. I like it. I really love the idea. I’m always wondering about, what’s people’s backstory? How did we all end up in the same place? Where were they before? What’s their story in life? Where are they going after? I used to exercise back in the day. I would sit in the spinning class, and I’m like, why is she upset? Where’d she come from? Where’s she going next? I thought I was weird until I was like, oh, every novelist thinks like this.

Karin: Exactly. What’s that story?

Zibby: Karin, thanks so much. This was really fun. Congratulations on your book. Best of luck with the launch and all of that.

Karin: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Take care.

Karin: Bye. Thank you.

Zibby: Bye. Thanks.

Karin Lin-Greenberg, YOU ARE HERE

YOU ARE HERE by Karin Lin-Greenberg

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